ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW: THE “New” New Lebanon School
BY LAURA KAEHLER AND JOHN MOTAY
It has been built, But will they Come?
Can an Architectural design help Address a political/social Issue?
An adbridged version of this article was published in the Greenwich Time on May 19, 2019
Some might say the genesis for the “new” New Lebanon School Project began in 2012, when the school was classified by the state as racially imbalanced. In response, the Greenwich Board of Education transformed New Lebanon into a “magnet” school that offered an International Baccalaureate program. They reasoned the quality of the education would draw students from other parts of town, thus balancing the racial composition. However, plagued by overcrowding, New Lebanon’s Magnet Program was unable to house students from outside its catchment area, so a decision was made to build a new, appropriate sized, 21st century state-of-the-art learning center.
But I think the roots of this project were planted back in 1989, when farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), in the iconic baseball movie, Field Of Dreams, decides to transform his Iowa cornfield into a baseball field complete with floodlights and bleaches after hearing a mysterious voice saying, "If you build it, he will come." But more on this later…
From an architectural perspective, this project raised an interesting question: Can the design of a school help correct concerns related to achievement gaps, racial imbalances, and facility utilization? Can an architectural design help remedy a social/political concern? To be successful, the new school had to satisfy two very different requirements. Functionally, it had to support the educational mission of an International Baccalaureate Program, and aesthetically, the design had to “wow” families living in other parts of town, into believing that the commute to and from a distant school is worth the effort.
What is an International Baccalaureate Program?
According to the International Baccalaureate Organization, the IB Program is an international, holistic, inquiry-based educational model that provides a unique framework for teaching and learning. Although the IB program uses the Greenwich Public School District’s curriculum and state standards, the teaching approach and method of delivery differ significantly from traditional programs. The program’s emphasis on systems thinking and team-based learning promotes the notion of being embedded in a local and global community. To foster the necessary collaboration that is required for community membership, students often work together on interdependent teams, where shared materials, knowledge, experience, and skills are needed to complete a task or activity. However, this approach requires a design with open, flexible spaces that can accommodate group discussion, dialog, and social interaction.
Does The Design Support the Program’s Educational Mission?
The new, New Lebanon School is replete with adaptive learning spaces, including large classrooms with flexible furnishings, and plenty of nooks, alcoves and mini-spaces designed for small learning breakout groups.The centrally located library, referred to as the “learning commons” seats 60 students, and is designed to connect learners, who often work together to “co-construct knowledge.” Rather than a quiet place for individual study, it offers multiple zones for simultaneous learning, as well as a small tiered “read aloud” story corner. Glazed, sliding doors open from the learning commons to the computer lab which also serves as a “maker space.” This area supports hands-on learning, where students actively create projects using video, 3D printers, laptop computers, and yes, even paper, scissors, paste, and paint. Craft-based work, and the ability to “make things” balances out the academic curriculum by adding a “creative” component.
While it is clear that the new school is aligned with the functional needs of the IB Program, the designers were also tasked with creating a design that is aesthetically powerful enough to attract students from others parts of town. The architects’ preliminary design was first proposed to the New Lebanon School Building Committee in 2015, and it clearly had “wow” power. After seeing Tai Soo Kim Architects (TSKA) design, they selected the firm to lead the project. Particularly impressive, was how TSKA envisioned siting the new school on a piece of property fraught with concerns related to location, shape, and geography. Specifically, the site, not only housed an existing functioning school, but it also bordered Route 95, had a wetland area, and was divided by a deep ravine with winding sloping walls, carved long ago by an ancient river.
Approaching the project with a respect for the natural environment, the architects decided to position the new structure at the bottom of the ravine, behind the existing school. According to Project Architect, Jesse Saylor, “The building was oriented to look up and down the river bed,” and in what is a very creative solution to a difficult site problem, they “used the rocky walls of the ravine to help provide acoustic shielding from the noise of the adjacent highway.”
Other advantages of using the contours of this ravine to shape the design were related to aesthetics and cost. Contouring the building’s walls to follow the sinuous curves and flow of the ravine softens the look and feel of the school. Additionally, by incorporating the ravine into the design, the architects reduced costs by eliminating the need for significant blasting and rock excavation. To assure the design was aligned with the natural environment, the designers clad the building in face-cast stone and natural zinc metal panels, which complement the granite boulders and rock outcroppings found throughout the site. The school’s curved interior hallways follow the soft twists and turns of the ravine as the blue and gray patterned linoleum flooring gives hint of a river’s flow.
The overall design aesthetic both inside and outside of the building is soothing-soft undulating lines coupled with an integrated color palette that invites a connection to the natural environment.
Another striking feature of the design is its sense of openness. Walls of glass and skylights are used extensively throughout the school and are positioned to highlight views of the woodlands and the rejuvenated wetlands, thus blurring the line between “inside and outside.” This sense of transparency can also be seen in the school’s interior. For example, from the second floor, interior windows and skylights offer well-lit views of the main office, gymnasium, cafeteria, and learning commons. One benefit of this open design is the abundance of natural light that literally floods the school. Given recent research studies that have correlated natural lighting with improved academic performance, its role is not merely cosmetic.
There is so much more to this design-from the incredible soundproofing that transmits a sense of quiet and calm, to the “gymnatorium,” with its all-purpose wood sports floor, state of the art scoreboard, and traverse-style climbing wall, as well as an ADA accessible stage with theatrical lighting, projector, and motorized blackout shades for plays and performances.
But is there enough? Enough to overcome the concerns of critics who cite the project as an unrealistic way to address the great divide between the town’s wealthier and poorer residents? The combined efforts of Tai Soo Kim Architects, the Town, State, Board of Education, and concerned citizens have built a gem of a school, but the question is, “will they come?”
In Field of Dreams, baseball greats from the past, including Ray’s father, a former minor league catcher, emerge from surrounding cornfields as the mystical baseball diamond summons them to “play ball.” Let’s hope, the “new” New Lebanon School offers as powerful a draw as Ray’s field, because as the tag line from the film coaxes: Sometimes when you believe the impossible, the incredible really does happen.